By Joshua Samuel Brown
It began with a countdown: San…er…yi…
And with an air horn’s blast they were off, 186 cyclists determined to test the upper limits of their endurance by riding close to 1000 kilometers in 48 near sleepless hours. They came from both sides of the Taiwan Straits, with a couple of European riders thrown in for good measure. If pre-race chatter was anything to go by, there was little in the way of cross-strait tension in the air. Whether from Beijing or Taipei, Shanghai or Kaohsiung, each knew they’d be facing the common enemies of pain, cramping and sheer exhaustion as they attempted to ride the perimeter of Taiwan. What would differ from rider to rider would be their own inner voices. Whether it told them jia you! (keep going!) more often than ...bu neng! (…cannot!) would make all the difference.
Moments before the group took off from the northwest corner of Taipei City’s Nangang Exhibition Hall, race officials had laid out the rules of the second annual Innova Taiwan 48 Hour Endurance Race: A lead car would set the pace in accordance with schedule and road conditions, and was not to be passed. At each of the eight checkpoints set up roughly equidistant around the island’s perimeter, points would be awarded to the first ten riders to cross. These would be earned in descending order, from forty eight points for the first rider down to two for the tenth. The moment the first competitor crossed the checkpoint a countdown would begin, with any rider not making it across in the allotted time – which would decrease from gate to gate – declared eliminated.
The group headed out through mid-day Taipei city traffic as the pace car, a white ambulance, cleared the road ahead. Referees on scooters rode behind and alongside the group, while several race officials sped ahead to set up the first rest stop, 30 kilometers to the northeast on the city’s outskirts. There, water and bananas would be served to independent competitors from a small blue flatbed work truck operated by the race organizers, while the 72 competitors who’d come with one of the eight cycling teams could get slightly higher class calories from their respective team vans.
A few of the more serious riders grumbled about having to pause so soon into the ride, and some felt that they’d barely warmed up. The two European riders, not understanding Chinese, used the time to attempt to clarify the route and scoring system with race organizers. The break was soon over, and the riders found themselves starting a long counterclockwise slog southward around the island’s perimeter, heading first down the mostly flat industrial western coast. Judges raced ahead to catch and disqualify a competitor from Gunagdong who’d been spotted racing ahead of the pacing car.
In the seaside town of Zhunan (South Bamboo), 118 kilometers from the start, the first round of points were awarded as riders and referees stopped for a 40 minute meal break. Most of the race staff rushed into a large open dining area restaurant, the kind typical in Taiwan, where they feasted hurriedly on the meat, fish and vegetable dishes waiting on lazy susans. So did competitors from a few of the teams who’d planned ahead and thought to order food. Most of the riders, however, stayed in the parking lot, stretching and eating under the afternoon sun as the slower ones straggled in. When the race continued thirty minutes later, over half of the initial group, having crossed the gate past closing, were disqualified. Some were picked up in the cars of friends. Others hopped on the tour bus to offer moral support to their fellows in the coming hours. A few of the eliminated riders simply turned around, presumably to ride back to their homes, or to the nearest train station.
Bellies full, a considerably leaner group of 88 continued south, the landscape, too, seeming to thin out as the race progressed. Past Zhunan, the digital industrial suburbs of Taiwan’s central west coast give way to long stretches of agricultural land, and the road was more open, winding around harbors, past the occasional Taoist temple. In a town called Mailiao, 140 kilometers since the last checkpoint and 258 since the start, the race reached another checkpoint beneath the setting sun. After eliminations were tallied, the group was refined again by half. Forty nine riders continued south through the bucolic night, but one team support van stayed behind to wait for a competitor from Shenzhen who’d gotten lost. She was the only woman in the race, she’d flown to Taiwan specifically to ride in the 48 hour challenge, and wept openly when she learned she’d been eliminated so quickly.
It was past midnight when the first rider reached the next checkpoint, the parking lot of a 7-11 store 110 kilometers further south on the outskirts of Tainan City. The group had, by then, ridden a total of 368 kilometers. The vans, having raced ahead, stood ready with water bottles and quickly consumed calories. A few of the team drivers had pre-ordered several plates of cho dofu (stinky tofu), a signature Taiwan dish. All of the riders ate quickly. Some lay down on sleeping bags and tried for a quick nap. A few riders managed both. Cramping was an issue for many at this stop, and team masseuses worked quickly attempting to soothe agonized muscles. In the last 5 minutes of this 20 minute break, a referee walked through the parking lot crying out a running countdown, “Setting off…Two minutes!”
The racers wound through the rural quiet of Taiwan’s banana belt, passing briefly through the outskirts of the island’s southernmost port city of Kaohsiung before hitting the narrow strip of land between the Taiwan Straits and the central mountain range’s tailbone. Darkness slowed the riders somewhat. Hoping to save weight, some had chosen not to equip their bicycles with lights, something which those with lights (who wound up lighting the way for competitors) found irksome and unfair. Eighteen hours and 458 kilometers from the ride’s starting point, the racers reached the end of the first day in the nondescript town of Fenggang. Riders and referees settled in for a scheduled two-and-a-half hour rest break. Some shared rooms in nearby motels, places used to short-duration guests (albeit for other purposes), while others spread sleeping bags on the town’s deserted sidewalk.
Racers and judges were roused at 7:45 AM, and after eliminations from the previous checkpoint were tallied, a group of 44 competitors lined up to begin the north-by-northeast trek towards Taiwan’s east coast. Many showed signs of exhaustion, while others seemed giddy, perhaps buoyed by the prospect that they’d soon reach the halfway point. All were highly motivated to finish, which was a good thing: The morning’s ride along a winding, narrow jungle road over the mountains would challenge any rider, sleep deprived or otherwise.
Whereas the race had been a spread out affair for most of the first day, by the time the climb began it had tightened into a few core groups and teams. Even the slowest rider was never far behind the pace car as the competitors climbed the mountain and the sun rose in the sky. At the summit of Route 9, riders stopped in the parking lot of a police station in the aboriginal village of Shouka, pissing and refilling their water bottles before heading onto the steep and winding descent towards the Pacific Ocean which, along with cliffs and mountains, defines much of Taiwan’s less populated east coast. For most of the cyclists from China, this was the first they’d seen of Taiwan’s beautiful eastern flank, renowned as a leisure destination thanks to its fine scenery and hot springs.
Though the landscape was prettier on the second day, the ride was hillier and more challenging, especially for riders from China, who were quickly realizing that in the mountainous terrain the Taiwanese cyclists enjoyed home court advantage. After passing through the checkpoint on the outskirts of Taitung (123 kilometers from the morning’s start point, 581 in total), the race broke from the coast and headed through Taiwan’s central rift valley, beneath which the Pacific and Asian plates collide in eternal anguished slow-mo. Exhaustion was clearly taking its toll, and many of the riders grimaced on climbs, and were riding slower overall than they had the previous day.
At the next checkpoint, 674 kilometers into the ride in the town of Yuli, the racers stopped for a 30 minute lunch break in the parking lot of a local county office with a Banyan tree out front. A few of the riders used the tree’s shade for a quick snooze. Other ten minute snack breaks came throughout the day, mostly at 7-11s where fish balls and tea eggs, Ramen and Red Bull were consumed between quick stretching sessions.
But caffeine and carbohydrates can only do so much. Shortly after the Yuli meal break, a Taiwanese rider in a state of mixed exhaustion and determination was nearly driven into one of the rice paddies flanking the road by a car. Whether the fault of the driver or the rider, the two exchanged information politely (as is the way in Taiwan), the cyclist receiving treatment for minor road rash. Despite some cosmetic damage to his bike, the cyclist managed to speed painfully back to his group as they climbed towards the Tropic of Cancer marker standing amidst hilly tea plantations and hot springs. By the time this point was crossed, there were only 38 riders left from the original 44 who’d started that morning.
At a twilight meal break and checkpoint by the town of Guangfu a light rain began to fall, and the race slowed considerably for reasons of safety concerns and general fatigue. At around 8:30, the race reached the last major rest stop before the grueling slog home, a scheduled 3.5 hour break at a motel in the coastal city of Hualian. Having ridden 748 kilometers, the race was now at roughly the 3 o’clock point of a teardrop-shaped clock face around which it’d gone counter-clockwise for 33 hours. Some riders felt that they could, at this point, make it back to midnight on that clock (another 220 kilometers) before dawn. Most were happy for the chance to rest until midnight, when racers would regroup for the final slog home.
The stretch of Route 9 between the coastal cities of Hualian and Su-ao is considered treacherous by most cyclists due to its winding climbs, steep descents and many blind spots. Its this road that the riders hit just past midnight, continuing along its contours for the next 100+ kilometers. The road was wet in places which encouraged closeness. At this point nearly all riders, especially those well ahead in points, were most concerned with maintaining a pace rather than doing any serious sprinting. The two European riders broke from the pack on this road, and were able to earn a few points at the checkpoint in Su’ao, a port town known for seafood and cold mineral springs.
With 855 kilometers down and 105 yet to go, the race left the highway and hit the smaller roads curving through the northern mountains that ring the massive metropolis of Taipei City. It’s a chaotic city, one called home by close to 3 million. Like the rest of Taiwan, it’s fairly friendly to cyclists, though most would argue that just after rush hour on a weekday morning following 47 hours of hard riding and little sleep was hardly the optimum venue for testing a city’s bike friendliness.
Back at the Nangang Exposition Center the annual Taipei Cycle Show was entering its third day. Race officials stood with stopwatches at pylons set up on the road, waiting for the first riders to cross the ad hoc finish line. In the Northwestern corner, the stage on which the countdown had begun just 47 hours ago was filled with pyramids of beer cans, a dozen bottles of champagne, several trophies and, for good measure, a few tastefully under dressed models.
Sunburned and beyond exhaustion, the first riders began crossing the finish line around 10:45, each to a round of thunderous applause from hundreds of spectators surrounding the stage. Some riders spilled from their saddles before the platform and accepted accolades from friends family, spectators and fellow riders alike. Others were emotional, and, not wanting to collapse in public, continued riding towards friends and family waiting for them with food and drink in the parking lot. By 11:15, all of the final 30 competitors had passed the checkpoint, and the final point tally began.
In small waves, each of the finishing racers were invited on the stage. Some thanked their comrades and support crews. A few riders from China said they hoped to return again to ride on the coast under more relaxed circumstances. The last three to mount the stage where the top three riders of the Taiwan 48, Liu Shu-ming, Zhou Rong-xi and Hong Kun-hong, who’d scored a very respectable 168, 116 and 112 points respectively. Climbing the stage on weary legs, the trio were greeted with applause and popping champagne corks.
Though exhausted moments before, the three were enjoying a collective second wind, thanks to a combination of crowd adoration, trophies and generous prize checks. “This was a real test of endurance, and I’m glad to have shared it with my fellow riders,” said Hong. One of the models asked him if he’d consider riding the 48-hour challenge again the following year, and Hong laughs.
“Ask me again after I’ve had some rest.”
Words and photos by Joshua Samuel Brown